Court ruling a setback for city: Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger, 11/16/05

Judges say property didn't belong in Perth Amboy redevelopment zone

By Sue Epstein

A six-acre industrial site in Perth Amboy that is home to several small businesses should not have been included in a redevelopment zone, a state appeals court panel ruled in a decision handed down yesterday.

The three-judge panel ruled the city had not proven that the property owned by ERETC met the state requirements of being in need of redevelopment and remanded it to the planning board for further investigation.

"We have carefully considered the record in light of the applicable law and find that the city's decision was not supported by substantial evidence," the judges said in a written decision released yesterday.

The city planning board relied on a report prepared by its planner, Michael T. Carr, when it recommended to the city council on Aug. 1, 2001, that the property be included in a redevelopment zone.

The judges found that the report lacked an analysis of the statutory criteria and did not have any evidence supporting Carr's determination that buildings were "substandard, unsafe, dilapidated, or obsolescent," as required by state law to include property in a redevelopment zone.

The council voted on Sept. 12, 2001, to accept the planning board's recommendation that the property be designated part of a redevelopment area.

The city wanted to use the Sayre Avenue site, located just off Route 35, to build public housing that will replace the Delaney Homes apartments. The Delaney Homes are being demolished to build a high school.

The Perth Amboy Housing Authority had transferred more than half of the residents of Delaney Homes when the high school project was placed on hold. The school was to be built by the state Schools Construction Corp. because Perth Amboy is a "special needs" district, but when the state agency ran out of money, it stopped work on most of its projects.

Leon Zelcer, the managing partner of ERETC, fought the designation from the beginning, arguing that his complex has three businesses that employ 325 people and is not run down. In 2001, he filed suit against the city to stop the action.

Yesterday, Zelcer was "ecstatic."

"It has been a long trek," he said. "This has been going on for four years. Thankfully, they upheld state law. I think it's a landmark case and will make other towns in the state sit up and listen."

Perth Amboy Mayor Joseph Vas said in a written statement that he was disappointed with the court's decision.

"It is unfortunate that they have taken such a narrow view of what constitutes substantial evidence. We believe substantial evidence should be a measurement of the entire record of deliberation before the planning board and council."

The appellate panel's decision overturns a ruling by Superior Court Judge James Hurley, sitting in New Brunswick, who upheld the city's action in June 2004 following a trial.

"In our view, the evidence presented to the planning board, council, and trial court was not sufficient to sustain a finding that the properties ... met the criteria set forth in (the state redevelopment laws)," the judges said in their decision. "Absent substantial evidence, the city's decision to designate (the area) as in need of redevelopment does not enjoy the deference generally accorded such findings. We, therefore, reverse and remand to the planning board for reconsideration of its decision."

The city's efforts to take the property became a major issue in Vas's mayoral re-election campaign last year because one of the attorneys representing Zelcer and his company was Vas' opponent, Billy Delgado.

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